drone in flight

How Do Drones and Driverless Trucks Factor into the Future of Waste Technology?

Industry experts predict that over the next few years, drones and other technologies will continue to reshape the industry.

The waste and recycling industry has made great strides to improve productivity and efficiency while reducing exposure to liability and costs through the use of technology. Industry experts predict that over the next few years, drones and other technologies will continue to reshape the industry.

“Drones equipped with cameras and sensors can provide facilities with feedback on everything from the mundane such as a roof inspection, bird control, or intruder alerts,” says Anne Germain, P.E., BCEE, director of waste and recycling technology for the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) based in Washington, D.C. “Equipped with environmental sensors, drones may begin to assist facilities with environmental monitoring activities.”

David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) in Silver Spring, Md., agrees.

“We are beginning to see more widespread use of drones for surveying and monitoring conditions at landfills,” he says. “At SWANA chapter events I attended in 2016, drone vendors demonstrated the technology and how it can be applied.  It’s fascinating, and can be a useful way to reduce safety risks.”

Data and data security have been the focus of many industries over this past year, which will begin permeating through the waste sector, as well.

“The ability to use data to analyze and forecast will provide a competitive edge allowing them to position themselves to take advantage of market trends. And, we have all been witness to the damage that can be caused by the lack of data security. As we increasingly move towards a technologically enhanced way of doing business, protecting ourselves from breaches and attacks will become increasingly important,” says Germain.

Waste companies and local governments collect a substantial amount of data in connection with their daily operations, including customers per hour, tonnage per route, and unsafe driving actions per shift. 

“The waste industry is likely to increase its investment in personnel that can better analyze these data streams in the coming years, as data management becomes a critical component of waste management.  Smaller entities that don’t invest in this area risk being left behind,” says Biderman.

Bradley Kelley, senior project engineer for Fairfax, Va.-based Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc., says an increase in the use of the “internet of things” in addition to big data will lead the future of technology in the waste industry.

“In many regions, the ability to just do things as they have always been done will no longer be possible or politically or economically viable,” he says. “The ability to properly use the information from a trash bin that may give a signal when full, or nearly full, will cause a significant shift in collections protocols and perhaps even pricing. Jurisdictions will have to begin setting up versatile contracts to be able to adjust to these technological changes.”

According to Germain, numerous changes have been made to waste collection over the years—automation, the use of RFID, the use of cameras focused both into and out of the vehicles, lane departure warnings, and supervisor feedback on sudden braking.

“The adoption of these technologies continues to accrete leading to safer conditions,” she says.

But Biderman says one piece of technology has been a net detriment to the industry.

“While cell phones and smart phones are wonderful devices, they have been implicated in a number of fatal crashes this past year involving solid waste vehicles,” he says. “The industry needs to join safety coalitions and support efforts to reduce distracted driving. Our collection workers are exposed on a daily basis to this hazard, and we need to reduce their exposure.”

According to Kelley, high costs may be a challenge for new technology in the U.S.

“It is easy to set high goals for recycling and diversion and efficiency, but these all have inherent costs and unfortunately, in many cases it is less expensive to landfill,” he says. “Until that changes (as has happened in much of Europe and now China) the implementation of new technology, especially for diversion, will likely be slow in North America. The political and economic climates will prove to be very important in how quickly these (and other) technologies are implemented in the future.”

Although not likely in 2017, Germain says driverless trucks are anticipated for the not-too-distant future.

“A logical progression might be the adoption of driverless trucks on stable routes, between two facilities. On-demand services or just-in-time services will contribute to the efficiency of collection system with the adoption of mobile apps or the use of sensors in collection containers,” she says.

Kelley agrees.

“There is a continued push to remove the human element from some of the more difficult—and dangerous—jobs in the waste and recycling industry,” he says. “These jobs can also be very difficult to fill.  While still a few years from major implementation, the success shown in 2016 with a high level of autonomous automation clearly shows the direction for the future.”

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